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Arts and Letters, Literature

Humboldt's Gift, hurt world, Crying of Lot, Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko

American literature since World War II is much more diverse in its voices than ever before. It has also expanded its view of the past as people rediscovered important sources from non-European traditions, such as Native American folktales and slave narratives. Rediscovering these traditions expanded the range of American literary history.

American Jewish writing from the 1940s to the 1960s was the first serious outpouring of an American literature that contained many voices. Some Jewish writers had begun to be heard as literary critics and novelists before World War II, part of a general broadening of American literature during the first half of the 20th century. After the war, talented Jewish writers appeared in such numbers and became so influential that they stood out as a special phenomenon. They represented at once a subgroup within literature and the new voice of American literature.

Several Jewish American novelists, including Herman Wouk and Norman Mailer, wrote important books about the war without any special ethnic resonance. But writers such as novelists Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, and storytellers Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick wrote most memorably from within the Jewish tradition. Using their Jewish identity and history as background, these authors asked how moral behavior was possible in modern America and how the individual could survive in the contemporary world. Saul Bellow most conspicuously posed these questions, framing them even before the war was over in his earliest novel, Dangling Man (1944). He continued to ask them in various ways through a series of novels paralleling the life cycle, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammlerís Planet (1970). One novel in the series earned a Pulitzer Prize (Humboldt's Gift, 1975). Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976. Like Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud struggled with identity and selfhood as well as with morality and fate. However, Roth often resisted being categorized as a Jewish writer. Playwright Arthur Miller rarely invoked his Jewish heritage, but his plays contained similar existential themes.

Isaac Bashevis Singer was also part of this postwar group of American Jewish writers. His novels conjure up his lost roots and life in prewar Poland and the ghostly, religiously inspired fantasies of Jewish existence in Eastern Europe before World War II. Written in Yiddish and much less overtly American, Singerís writings were always about his own specific past and that of his people. Singer's re-creation of an earlier world as well as his stories of adjusting to the United States won him a Nobel Prize in literature in 1978.

Since at least the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, American writers of African descent, such as Richard Wright, sought to express the separate experiences of their people while demanding to be recognized as fully American. The difficulty of that pursuit was most completely and brilliantly realized in the haunting novel Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison. African American writers since then have contended with the same challenge of giving voice to their experiences as a marginalized and often despised part of America.

Several African American novelists in recent decades have struggled to represent the wounded manner in which African Americans have participated in American life. In the 1950s and 1960s, James Baldwin discovered how much he was part of the United States after a period of self-imposed exile in Paris, and he wrote about his dark and hurt world in vigorous and accusatory prose. The subject has also been at the heart of an extraordinary rediscovery of the African American past in the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and the fiction of Alice Walker, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison. Probably more than any American writer before her, Morrison has grappled with the legacy that slavery inflicted upon African Americans and with what it means to live with a separate consciousness within American culture. In 1993 Morrison became the first African American writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in literature.

Writers from other groups, including Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and Filipino Americans, also grappled with their separate experiences within American culture. Among them, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich have dealt with issues of poverty, life on reservations, and mixed ancestry among Native Americans. Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros have dealt with the experiences of Mexican Americans, and Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston have explored Chinese American family life.

Even before World War II, writers from the American South reflected on what it meant to have a separate identity within American culture. The legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction left the South with a sense of a lost civilization, embodied in popular literature such as Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell, and with questions about how a Southern experience could frame a literary legacy. Southern literature in the 20th century draws deeply on distinct speech rhythms, undercurrents of sin, and painful reflections on evil as part of a distinctly Southern tradition. William Faulkner most fully expressed these issues in a series of brilliant and difficult novels set in a fictional Mississippi county. These novels, most of them published in the 1930s, include The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom (1936). For his contribution, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1949. More recent Southern writers, such as Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, James Dickey, and playwright Tennessee Williams, have continued this tradition of Southern literature.

In addition to expressing the minority consciousness of Southern regionalism, Faulkner's novels also reflected the artistic modernism of 20th-century literature, in which reality gave way to frequent interruptions of fantasy and the writing is characterized by streams of consciousness rather than by precise sequences in time. Other American writers, such as Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and E. L. Doctorow also experimented with different novel forms and tried to make their writing styles reflect the peculiarities of consciousness in the chaos of the modern world. Doctorow, for example, in his novel Ragtime juxtaposed real historical events and people with those he made up. Pynchon questioned the very existence of reality in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravityís Rainbow (1973).

Aside from Faulkner, perhaps the greatest modernist novelist writing in the United States was emigre Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov first wrote in his native Russian, and then in French, before settling in the United States and writing in English. Nabokov saw no limits to the possibilities of artistic imagination, and he believed the artist's ability to manipulate language could be expressed through any subject. In a series of novels written in the United States, Nabokov demonstrated that he could develop any situation, even the most alien and forbidden, to that end. This was demonstrated in Lolita (1955), a novel about sexual obsession that caused a sensation and was first banned as obscene.

Despite its obvious achievements, modernism in the United States had its most profound effect on other forms of literature, especially in poetry and in a new kind of personal journalism that gradually erased the sharp distinctions between news reporting, personal reminiscence, and fiction writing.

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